Former LPGA player Chela Quintana shows courage amid violence in Venezuela 

Venezuela-Golfer-Riots- Courtesy Chela Quintana

Former LPGA player Chela Quintana shows courage amid violence in Venezuela 

LPGA Tour

Former LPGA player Chela Quintana shows courage amid violence in Venezuela 

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When a gas bomb hits the skin, it feels like a thousand needles on the face. Everything goes white. The wind can shift so quickly that protestors in the streets don’t have time to pull up their masks or handkerchiefs.

Chela Quintana, the first Venezuelan to compete on the LPGA, has watched people get shot right in front of her. Recently, she said, troops began swapping out the tear gas in their guns for golf balls.

To retaliate, young Venezuelans filled up water bombs with excrement.

“The cops started running away,” said 54-year-old Quintana, who was headed out to the horse stables at her country club that afternoon to collect more ammunition.

These are desperate times in Caracas.

Deadly anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela are calling for the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro. The protests began in earnest after the Venezuelan Supreme Court dissolved parliament March 29, which left the remaining two branches of government controlled by Maduro’s United Socialist Party.

Former LPGA player Chela Quintana, who suffers from asthma, wears a gas mask during anti-government marches in Caracas. (Chela Quintana)

“The main objective was always to establish an authoritarian regime,” said Dr. Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science who specializes in Latin American politics at Florida International University.

The decision was reversed three days later, but protests already were in full swing. News agencies report that at least 40 people have died in connection with the mass demonstrations.

The economic situation in this once-affluent, oil-rich country is so grim people are forced to eat dog food, leaving dogs to howl in the streets over their empty stomachs. There are scant medical supplies. Babies die every day, Quintana said, because goodhearted people can’t care for them.

The inflation rate hit an all-time high of 800 percent last December, according to estimates given by Venezuela’s opposition-led Congress, which were cited on Trading Economics. Cooking oil, for example, has not been on supermarket shelves for more than a year, Quintana said. Imported oils can still be found in deli stores, but at the equivalent of $65, it’s a price few can afford.

“They are now into hyperinflation,” Gamarra said, “with no prospects for recovery.”

Trips home perilous for college golfer

Dismary Marquez went home for Christmas to visit her mother in Las Minas de Baruta, or “the hood” as she called it. Her dorm at Alabama State was about the size of the one-room home she once shared with her mother, brother and grandmother in Venezuela.

During her first three years of college, Marquez didn’t go back because her mother said it was too dangerous. Things have only gotten worse, but she could no longer stay away.

When her mother, Maria, rose at 3 a.m. last December to stand in a food line, a nervous Marquez insisted on tagging along. Venezuelans can only shop on certain days of the week based on the last digit of their social security number.

Hungry people sleep on the sidewalks waiting for the stores to open to buy staples like flour, sugar and toilet tissue.

Dr. Gary Grandison and Dismary Marquez. (Courtesy of Dismay Marquez)

“Sometimes nothing comes,” Dismary Marquez said, “and you just have a slice of bread and go to sleep.”

People are often robbed while waiting in food lines, a reality that keeps Marquez up at night with worry.

Her escape from a similar fate began with help from a stranger from Atlanta, who went into the poor sections of Venezuela to put golf clubs in the hands of underprivileged kids. An 11-year-old Marquez was among those fortunate to receive a scholarship to the U.S. to train at an academy.

Ten years ago while shopping at a PGA Superstore in Atlanta, Alabama State golf coach Dr. Gary Grandison spotted a promising swing on a young girl in a hitting bay. She’s a natural, Grandison thought to himself.

Sadly, Marquez’s scholarship money ran out short of high school graduation and she was shipped back to Venezuela with little hope of continuing on with a sport of the elite.

But along came Quintana, a local hero who once told newspaper reporters she wanted to be the next Nancy Lopez.

Quintana owns 13 national titles in Venezuela and paved the way for professional golfers. She won on the Symetra Tour in 1992 and qualified for the LPGA in ’94.

Injury ultimately ended her competitive career, and she returned to serve as director and coach at Lagunita Country Club, overseeing a junior golf academy of 120. She also started a foundation at the club to help serve the underprivileged.

‘She has been my guardian angel’

When Quintana heard of Marquez’s story, she tracked down the 17-year-old at work in a bookstore.

“I’m giving you your dream back,” Quintana said. “I’ll see you tomorrow at 8 a.m.”

Four years after Grandison first spotted Marquez at that PGA Superstore, a recruiting profile with the same face landed on his desk.

“I call her my destiny’s child,” he said.

Quintana gave Marquez a place to practice and helped fast-track her high school diploma. When Marquez found out she had a tumor on her femur, Quintana helped fundraise the money for surgery and paid for the apartment she needed during recovery because she couldn’t climb the stairs to her family’s home.

“She has pretty much been my guardian angel,” Marquez said.

At age 19, Marquez enrolled at Alabama State on a golf scholarship. She played four years for Grandison, won twice and graduated magna cum laude on May 13 with a degree in accounting.

She will soon start work on a masters degree in Montgomery, Ala., thanks to an academic scholarship.

Scene from an anti-government demonstration in Caracas. (@corredorfotografia)

“That’s my purpose in life,” Quintana said. “My purpose is to help the poor here. To help my kids to have a better life, and to have hope.”

Before Cris Stevens left for Irving, Texas, last April to minister to players on the LPGA, she shipped two boxes of supplies to Quintana. The LPGA chaplain regularly sends asthma medication and toilet tissue to her sister in Christ. This particular care package included eye drops for contact lenses, soap and lotions – everyday items that cost a fortune now in Caracas.

Quintana’s annual salary of $1,500 makes the prospect of buying a plane ticket to the U.S. near impossible. Stevens donates her airline miles.

“The government has taken land from my family,” said Quintana, who grew up in an affluent home. “They have seized it, and there’s nothing you can do.”

Stevens talks often by phone with Quintana and can hear gunshots in the background. Mostly it’s bullets being shot in the air, but when the bullets get close, Quintana hits the floor.

Running water twice a week

She tells Stevens of her harrowing tales during protest marches and asks for prayer.

“I really didn’t think I would come home alive today,” she recently told Stevens.

The rationing started two-and-a-half years ago. There’s running water i Quintana’s house twice a week, on Tuesday and Sunday, starting at 6 a.m. and lasting only 30 minutes. That’s when Quintana fills up her tub so she can flush the toilet.

Many of her compatriots have it far worse.

Veronica Felibert grew up at the same club as Chela Quintana and has bounced back and forth between the Symetra Tour and LPGA since 2009. (©2016 Scott A. Miller)

Veronica Felibert, a graduate of the University of Southern California, grew up at the same club as Quintana and has bounced back and forth between the Symetra Tour and LPGA since 2009. Her father, David, is a cardiologist in Caracas, and he too marches.

“Everybody that I know marches,” said 31-year-old Felibert, who tries to limit the number of news stories she digests on the weekends when competing. It’s difficult, she said, to keep her head in a good place when her heart is breaking.

Felibert frequently visits her sister’s family in Miami, but her father won’t leave his homeland.

“These people need me,” he tells her.

Children eating from garbage

Each time Felibert returns to Lagunita, she notices how thin those who work at the club have become.

“It’s shocking to me,” she said.

Data from the Venezuela Living Conditions Survey found that nearly 75 percent of the population lost 19 pounds in 2016, eating two or less meals a day.

“You see the kids eating out of the garbage,” Quintana said.

Such desperation has led to an explosion of crime. In 2015, Caracas overtook San Pedro Sula, Honduras as the most violent city in the world, according to a report published by a Mexican nonprofit group that tracks homicide rates around the world.

Marquez said 60 or more people could be killed in one weekend of violence where her family lives. Children no longer play baseball in the streets in the evening hours. No one sits outside to greet their neighbors. A once-vital subway system has become too dangerous to ride.

‘It’s … what do you call it? Agony.’

Twice now Marquez’s older brother has been robbed.

Once at 7:30 a.m. while walking to his work as an accountant. Teenagers pulled out a gun and pointed it toward his chest, demanding his phone and wallet. The second time he was going home from work on a bus when two young kids essentially held the entire bus hostage, keeping all passengers onboard until each was robbed. Marquez dreams of one day bringing her mother to America.

Caracas has become the most-violent city in the world. “I wake up scared every day thinking about what could happen to them,” Dismay Marquez says. “It’s … what do you call it? Agony.” (@corredorfotografia)

“I wake up scared every day thinking about what could happen to them,” she said. “It’s … what do you call it? Agony.”

The part that pains Quintana the most is the toll this particular hell has taken on families. The cultural norm in Latin America was for young adults to remain at home with their parents until marriage.

Now, those who can afford to escape, do. Families are scattered around the globe, a brain drain that could take generations to repair.

“The government has destroyed the family unit,” Quintana said.

Government protestors demand freedom for the 100-plus political prisoners, which Gamarra said includes former mayors and presidential candidates.

The military vows to support Maduro. Quintana, a woman who has met two Popes, tries discreetly to reason with them when possible.

“What kind of country are you going to leave your kids?” she asks.
Quintana doesn’t have children. She walks 20 miles a day in protest for the mothers who can’t march. She runs for her life when a peaceful demonstration turns into a chaotic mob. She hides when she needs to, and prays every step of the way home.

The weary citizens of Venezuela will keep putting pressure on the Madura regime, Quintana said, until the military ultimately joins their cause for freedom.

“If they kill me, I fought for them,” she said. “I fought for the young people.”

(Note: This story appeared in the May 22, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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